Critic Undergoes Sex Change!

Theater "by women, about women, for everyone." This is the slogan of the Women's Theatre Project, and it is as harmless (in a nü-school, inclusive, P.C. kind of way) as it is brainless (would women ever go to a theater that was "by men, about men, for everyone"?). It is also, I suspect, a lie.

Yes: a lie. A bald-faced lie devised by a secret cabal of bloodthirsty feminists who live beneath the floorboards of Sixth Star Entertainment, where the Women's Theatre Project makes its home. It is the kind of ideologically inert statement that will set off no alarms for the bored beaus accompanying their girlfriends to the theater. They will wander in, sip some red wine, take their seats, and hope their willful submission to two hours in Lifetime Original Movie purgatory will earn them some nookie when they get home.

But it never goes that far. Because once a man has set foot inside Sixth Star Studios, he is theirs, the property of the Women's Theatre Project, and they will do what they want with him. And that thing, that heinous act, is none other than this: They will turn him into a woman!

It's a subtle thing — a slight tweaking of the sensibilities, a barely perceptible swelling of the nipples, so below the radar that it took me seven or eight trips to the Project to notice it for myself. But now I have, and I'm telling the world.

The other night, I walked into Sixth Star Studios a man. I took my seat and mentally readied myself for Silent Heroes, a new play by Linda Escalera Baggs. The play zoomed in on a roomful of military wives waiting to find out which of their husbands had died in a plane crash. It occurred to me that the premise was eerily similar to that of WTC's last production, True Blue, in which a bunch of female cops tried to deal with the death of two of their husbands (who were also cops) in a car crash. The more I thought about the weird thematic convergence, the sillier I thought it was. Isn't this typical? I thought. All of their productions really are about men. They're just offstage at the time. When director Genie Croft appeared and promised the audience "a hell of a show," as though Silent Heroes were going to be something other than a wet-eyed feelingsfest, I had to pin my eyeballs in place with my thumbs just to keep them from rolling crazily in their sockets.

Then the play started, and at first I was cool. In the play's first half hour, I filled my notebook with manly observations like: Why all the forced banter? Forced banter has always been the enemy of WTP. When their plays begin, the actors work so hard to create a sense of intimacy with one another that you can smell the perspiration. Exposition-filled small talk masquerading as camaraderie is a special obsession of WTP, and it seldom produces a play without it.

Another manly observation from the book: What?! Domestic abuse?! See, the military wives gathered together in Silent Heroes are very much up in one another's business. That's how they all came to be in this cramped little room on a military base this evening, waiting to see which one of their husbands would fail to land his plane. (Why don't the folks on the base already know which plane crashed? Silent Heroes does provide an explanation, but it'd be pointless to go into it here.) It's the unofficial Marine Wife Telephone Tree. And for some reason that no man could ever explain, one of the wives, Eleanor (Barbara Sloan), has chosen this moment to force one of her compatriots to admit that her husband is physically abusive.

I'm going to say this again: The wives are sitting around, waiting to see which of their husbands won't be coming home, and one of the wives is talking mad crazy smack about her friend's possibly-dead spouse.

The last manly observation from my notebook is this: Oh, Christ. Now comes the confession. Because I knew the abused woman in question was going to have a meltdown and tearfully admit to the assembled wives that their suspicions were correct. And when she did, I knew on an intuitive level that it was a sign of more meltdowns to come. In the feelingsfest that is Silent Heroes, six women in a room means six separate confessions, six separate meltdowns, six separate opportunities for the other wives to give their sisters a cold shoulder or a hug.

But then, just as this sickening realization set in, a remarkable thing happened. I surrendered. Not entirely — I retained my ability to discern that these military wives were full of emotion but devoid of irony; that every time Tara Vodihn, playing the room's lone black pilot's wife, opened her mouth, she was going to monotonously recite some ridiculously earnest thing about how nobody understands her while keeping her arms woodenly affixed to her sides, like John McCain on a damp winter day in New Hampshire. But I did surrender in an important way. I actually started caring.

I would like to attribute this to the remarkable performance of Sally Bondi, an actress who outclasses everybody in a room every time she gets on a stage (why have I never seen her at Palm Beach Dramaworks? At GableStage? At Mad Cat? What is wrong with people?!), but it's not her. It's the bloodthirsty cabal of feminists under the floor. There's no other way to explain it. The actresses' effusions/confessions about Vietnam, infidelity, abuse, the cost of patriotism, children out of wedlock, and racism actually become affecting in spite of their improbability and silliness.

Truly. And even if it's not the cabal of feminists, the sudden transformation certainly has nothing to do with Baggs' hyper-earnest writing nor with the overlabored performances of all but two of Heroes' actors. All of this was patently, ostentatiously bad. Still, I cried a little. And then, when I left the theater, I felt like I'd been had. You cried, B? Why on Earth?!

Go for yourself. Watch. It's remarkable. Not good — definitely not that — but it feels profound. I don't know if that's all women are after in their theater, but in some essential and totally illogical way, I guess it's enough.

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Brandon K. Thorp